Souls made to order

Pattaramon Chanbua, a Thai surrogate mother, was in the news when the couple who hired her to carry what turned out to be twin children refused to take one of the children, who has Down syndrome, or remit the payment they had agreed upon. Continue reading Souls made to order

Sustainable Sex

Painting by Edward Burne-Jones: Love Among The Ruins (1894)
Edward Burne-Jones: Love Among The Ruins (1894)

The Editors are pleased to bring you this guest post from Marc Barnes of Bad Catholic. The subject matter necessitates a more explicit treatment than our usual PG-rated content.

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Our culture is sexually schizophrenic.

On the one hand, it has become acceptable to purchase torture porn at Barnes & Noble. On the other, as the Daily Mail reports, “around one per cent of the world’s population [approximately 70 million people] are ‘asexuals’ who feel no sexual attraction at all,” a growing group seeking recognition as the fourth sexual orientation.

On the one hand, anal sex is more popular than ever, sex shops are reporting massive increases in the sale of nipple clamps, and the average age a boy is exposed to hardcore pornography is 14, all to which we applaud: Sexy stuff indeed. But on the other — as a 2011 article published in Psychology Today concluded — the use of internet pornography has created a generation of men who cannot be aroused by their actual, real life partners, and that “many are becoming convinced that [erectile dysfunction] at twenty-something is normal.” Not so sexy.

We talk more and more about the marvelous act of coitus, and we’re happily exposed to every arousing portion of the human body that can be used to sell us beer, cars, and deodorant — yet sex itself seems to be less and less fun. Only 64 percent of women report having an orgasm in their last sexual encounter (despite 85 percent of men thinking their partner had an orgasm), and in a recent survey, it was shown that 63 percent of married women would rather “do something else” than have sex with their husbands — watching a movie being the most popular alternative.

All in all, we cannot make up our minds between getting our freak on and collapsing into an armchair, bored and dissatisfied.

There is a parallel we might draw with this phenomenon of both inaction and action, of the simultaneous whittling of sex into an boring, unimportant non-thing and the hyping up of sex into an ultra-eroticized idol: Death.

In their death throes, humans fade into nothingness while flailing in fits of energy. At the end of all action, there is a panic of action. This saddens me to no end, for sex is awesome, beautiful, unifying, and life-giving, and yet we see mirrored in our sexual culture what we see in death — grotesque action on the way to final inaction. Is sex dying?

Read an interview by The Guardian entitled “Why sex could be history,” and you’ll find that the answer — for some — is a happy affirmative. Here author Aarathi Prasad points out that science has made it possible to divorce sex from reproduction, and that we should no longer view the two as intertwined. Sex is no longer strictly necessary to human beings.

Or look at the general “Christian” response to the sexual culture, incarnated in abstinence-education programs: Sex is dirty thing, a dangerous thing, an evil thing. Perhaps this is not intention of those running such programs, but it is another affirmative response to the death of sex.

If we are witnessing the cultural death of sex, I — for one — am unsurprised. Farming unsustainably kills the land. Running a business with unsustainable resources kills the business. Sustainability is the capacity to endure, and our current sexual culture is unsustainable.

Pornography and subsequent masturbation have set an impossibly high standard for women. Men have seen hundreds of fake-breasted, airbrushed, aroused-to-the-point-of-myocardial-infarction pixels, all contorted into positions that would make an Olympic gymnast proud — before they have lain with an actual, warm-blooded woman. As Naomi Wolf noted in her article “The Porn Myth”:

Here is what young women tell me on college campuses when the subject comes up: They can’t compete, and they know it. For how can a real woman—with pores and her own breasts and even sexual needs of her own (let alone with speech that goes beyond “More, more, you big stud!”)—possibly compete with a cybervision of perfection, downloadable and extinguishable at will, who comes, so to speak, utterly submissive and tailored to the consumer’s least specification?

For most of human history, erotic images have been reflections of, or celebrations of, or substitutes for, real naked women. For the first time in human history, the images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women. Today, real naked women are just bad porn.

Worse, the practice of masturbation releases oxytocin into the male system, a chemical that facilitates human bonding, increases in trust, and decreases in fear. All the joy, comfort and unity that sex brings are being sold to pornography, and a psychological attachment is made — not to a woman — but to a screen. It’s no wonder that we’re witnessing a generation of men addicted to pixels but unable to perform with an actual person. Our current sexual culture is fed by pornography (which it seems to be, given that approximately 70 percent of men ages 18-24 regularly visit porn sites), which supplies us with demands of sex that cannot be met in reality. It is unsustainable.

As is our contraceptive mentality. We’ve made our sex depend on contraception, but contraception cannot provide. Contraception offers us freedom from unwanted pregnancy, but despite the near universal use of contraception, one out of every two American pregnancies are unplanned, and two thirds of unplanned pregnancies — representing about two million annual pregnancies — are unwanted. Sixty percent of abortions are performed on women who were using contraception at the time they conceived a child. Contraception offers us protection against STDs, but again, despite universal access, 1 in 4 Americans will contract an STD in their lifetime, and it won’t be the penicillin-treatable gonorrhea or syphilis that our Land Before Condoms enjoyed. It’ll be one of approximately twenty-five unique and exciting STDs that exploded out of the sexual revolution — most likely incurable.

Whether this failure could be turned around by even more education and access to contraception is doubtful, but ultimately not the point. Our contraceptive mentality is currently unsustainable, for it claims as its own a goal it does not meet: Consequence-free sex.

Unsustainability leads to death, and death is characterized by a paradoxical meeting of grotesque action on its way to final inaction. We can see the unsustainability. Whether we are desperately crying for increased comprehensive sex education and access to birth control, or just as desperately for the return of sacredness to the act of sex, we are united in desperation, united over the fact that the sexual culture is not as it should be. We can see the grotesque action, whether in the hundreds of thousands of child pornography sites accessed daily or the sudden chic of torture porn. And we can see the final inaction, the paling of sex, the sexual dysfunction.

All I’m suggesting is that these things are not unrelated: Our culture is experiencing the untimely death of sex.

But we are not our culture. We, individual human beings, can do whatever we want. We can respectfully give the middle finger to the culture and walk away, in a fashion not unlike a man walking from an exploding building without looking over his shoulder. There is a growing movement of people advocating what I’ll broadly term as “sustainable sex”: Sex that endures. Sex that leads neither to its own destruction, nor the hurt and destruction of those enjoying it. Sex that makes no unrealistic demands of the pornographic variety, nor the unrealistic demand of total freedom from consequence.

Sex that seeks to be healthy, free from the chemicals of contraception that harm the human body and the environment, and avoiding the multiple-partner lifestyle that brings with it the high risk of STDs.

Sex that seeks to be responsible, acknowledging the power of intercourse to create new life, and instead of desperately trying to suppress it — which only works for so long — actually planning a family, using a woman’s natural indicators of fertility to effectively choose when and when not to have children.

It’s an awesome thing, watching more and more people turn to a holistic understanding of sex, to beautiful, life-giving marriages, and to the use of natural methods of family planning. It’s as awesome as it is necessary, this revolution of the heart, for our sexual culture will either embrace sustainability or die.

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Marc Barnes is the writer of Bad Catholic and the proprietor of 1flesh.org. Our appreciation of his work is entirely unironic, and we liked him before he was cool.

A Sign in Your Flesh

Image: Rembrandt etching "The Circumcision in the Stable"
Rembrandt: The Circumcision in the Stable (1654)

Recently the practice of religious circumcision has been in the news. Last year anti-circumcision activists sought a ballot initiative to ban the practice in San Francisco. Their publicity efforts included a comic book in which a blond superhero kidnaps a Jewish boy lest he be circumcised by a bloodthirsty rabbi. The initiative was struck down in the courts. Then this year, in Germany, a regional court ruled that the practice of circumcision ran counter to human rights. Germany’s prime minister, Angela Merkel, has vowed to reverse the decision.

In both of these instances, the specter of anti-Semitism seemed to lurk close to the surface–certainly the San Francisco activists could scarcely conceal their visceral contempt for those who circumcise their sons for religious reasons. However, the German court in their judgment did not recall Nazi propaganda. Rather, they appealed to universal human rights, specifically the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity.” By their reasoning, circumcision would violate this right.

Without knowing the judges themselves it is impossible to say whether anti-Semitism secretly influenced their decision, but I sincerely believe it did not. Even the worst of hypocrites, anyway, would hesitate to take an action recalling the painful history of anti-Jewish hatred in Germany which culminated in the Holocaust. The judges must have known their decision would excite scrutiny, and nevertheless chose to do what they thought was the right thing, based on their true belief in a “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity.” The judges are emphatically not echoing Nazi policy, at least not by intention. They are well-meaning and liberal. Keep in mind that although here we describe ourselves as conservative, we do not use “liberal” as if it were a dirty word. “Liberal” in its best meaning suggests liberality, a generous disposition to give people the benefit of the doubt in their free choices. As far as this goes our opinions might as well be called liberal. But liberalism is not turtles all the way down. It rests on something unlike itself that is even more fundamental–innate human dignity and worth–which in turn rests on humankind’s unique likeness to God.

The system of ethics which believes it has discovered the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity” seems to have no serious qualms about abortion or euthanasia; no concerns about the possible effects of transhumanistic experimentation, cloning, “gender reassignment” and other mutilations and interferences with human biology which are absolutely violative of bodily integrity. The fact that the same ethicists support all of the above along with a supposed “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity” without any sense of contradiction is a scandal.

To understand the issues surrounding the circumcision debate we must ask some very basic questions about human rights. Who qualifies as a rights-possessing human being, and why? What is the nature of the rights he/she possesses, and why? A human right may indeed compel a certain course of action, or prohibit a particular behavior, but first we must be certain enough that the right exists to justify the inconvenience and curtailment of free choices that a right necessitates. For instance, does everyone in the world have a right to maintain a certain standard of living? This is a good and noble aim that we should work to accomplish, but it does not rise to the level of an absolute human right because to impose it we would have to curtail more basic human rights.

“Bodily integrity” may be a human right which interacts with other human rights and duties. But how does the right of the child to bodily integrity inform other things we regard as “rights,” such as a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy? The woman has the right to choose what to do with her own body, sure, but the child’s fundamental right to bodily integrity is not so highly regarded then, though it is apparently inviolable only eight days after birth. Has a mother the right to kill her child in utero at will, even though he does not seriously endanger her health, yet not have the right have him circumcised eight days after birth? Surely what is really at stake here is not bodily integrity but a right to self-determination or “choice,” which an adult woman is capable of exercising but an infant is not. So may parents choose to vaccinate their children in infancy? To do reconstructive or cosmetic surgery? To circumcise?

Human beings possess a dignity intrinsic to them as human beings, regardless of their age, health, self-awareness, or any other characteristic. This dignity is the basis of “human rights.” But this is an insight unavailable to science and natural philosophy. It is a religious insight.

My grandmother died of Alzheimer’s disease a couple of years ago. Although throughout the several years of her affliction the progressive dementia and physical problems caused pain and a sense of loss for her and her family, they did not deprive her of her humanity and intrinsic personhood. Rather, we appreciated her all the more as we experienced the loss occasioned by her decline. It did not make her less of a person, but the experience did increase our own humanity. Loving and losing her has made us closer as a family. We all–me, my father’s brother and sisters, Grandma’s loving and patient husband, and the nurses and attendants in the Alzheimer’s ward of her retirement home, are now better people. And Grandma, for that matter continues more than ever in her personhood, now in the knowledge of God, awaiting the hope of the resurrection of the dead into new and perfect life through Jesus.

Human rights rest on an understanding that human persons are sacred and deserve respect for what they are and what they represent. What they represent is most clearly understood within the Jewish religious tradition. The book of Genesis is the book of first things both philosophically and chronologically. It relates how the world and all things in it came to be, and especially how human beings were created as a creature specially favored by God to rule over the other creatures. The first humans were tempted to arrogance and fell away from the knowledge of God, but not from his love. As evil and death entered the world through the actions of human beings, God promised that amid all the suffering and death that would be our lot in life, he would be working to repair and renew the world through a child that he would choose.

Many years after this, God revealed his promise in greater detail to the nomad Abraham. Through Abraham’s descendents, all people would be blessed. As yet Abraham, though an old man, had no children. Later God commanded that as a sign of God’s promise Abraham and his male descendents should be circumcised. When Isaac was miraculously born to Abraham and Sarah, he was circumcised on the eighth day after birth. For over three thousand years the descendents of Abraham and Isaac have continued to practice circumcision of male children, remembering God’s covenant with a sign in the flesh.

God made human beings along with everything else, but he made us especially to reflect his nature and character, both in the way we live with one another, and the way we care for all of creation. This is why we assign ultimate value to the life and dignity of all human beings. It is priceless and sacred, a gift for which nothing can be substituted. But if this is true, we only know it because God, who is transcendent, has been pleased to reveal himself to us. He chose to do this by making a covenant with a family of nomadic shepherds three thousand years ago–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Today the people who carry their DNA are a living and breathing testament to humankind’s personal encounter with the God who made us. The scriptures their descendents recorded and preserved are the record of God’s message to mankind.

Judeo-Christian ethics are founded on the identity of human beings as God’s image-bearers. Murder is not merely a socially dangerous act; it is a desecration, an act of blasphemy. God told Noah and his sons to put to death any murderer, or even any animal that killed a human being. The civil code God later gave to the people of Israel maintains this law along with others, including instructions about caring for the poor and other laws which were very humane in their cultural context. The law of Moses is not the last word in divine ethics–Jesus provides that–but it is the first, and it belongs to the Jews as they belong to it.

Yet, it is not their faithfulness to the Law as a whole but the rite of circumcision itself which in large part has made Jewish identity “sustainable.” It has been practiced consistently more than any other religious rite and is the greatest continual factor in Jewish identity over the ages. It was already established before the history of the Jews ever began with Moses. Their deliverance from Egypt and the foundation of the nation of Israel were effects of their chosen identity, not its cause. Circumcision tells the Jewish child, “You are one of God’s chosen people, having been marked in the flesh by the sign of his covenant. You did not choose him, but he chose you and your ancestors.”

Just as circumcision is a sign for Jews of God’s covenant with them, the miraculous existence of the Jewish people today after three thousand years, is a sign to us of God’s ability to keep his promises. The Jews are a sign in our flesh–members of humanity–that God has not forsaken the world. Although as non-Jews we need not adopt the practice of circumcision, we should respect it as a sign to us, as it is for them, that God has made a covenant with human beings, initiating a relationship that still exists today. The opponents of Jewish circumcision confound their own received ethics and show the anti-religious tendency of their self-destructive beliefs. And by rejecting Judaism, they leave themselves without any fixed basis to affirm the unity of the human race and the inestimable value of human life.

Francis Bacon’s Inside-Out Philosophy

Cover image of The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon

The New Atlantis and The Great Instauration
by Francis Bacon, ed. Jerry Weinberger
Harlan Davidson, 1989
128 pages, paperback, $7.95

Francis Bacon (1561-1621) is the founding philosopher of modern science. The New Atlantis and The Great Instauration constitute two documents in Bacon’s project of placing science on a more experimental footing; of separating it from either natural or moral philosophy; of imagining it in the center of a new world; an until-then-unprecedented attempt to manipulate nature for the relief of man’s estate.

Although The New Atlantis has probably been more influential, The Great Instauration is a good place to start because it is a pretty straightforward polemic in favor of Bacon’s idea. In his Dedication to King James I of England, whom he served as Chancellor, Bacon hopes that James’s reign would become “famous to posterity” for its “regeneration and restoration of the sciences” under the patronage of the King. He hopes to “instaurate,” that is, to renew or renovate, science, the knowledge and understanding of things. Bacon’s goal is “the collecting and perfecting of a Natural and Experimental History, true and severe (unincumbered with literature and book-learning), such as philosophy may be built upon” so that “philosophy and the sciences may no longer float in air, but rest on the solid foundation of experience of every kind” (p. 6). Continue reading Francis Bacon’s Inside-Out Philosophy

Starving on Nihilism: The Moral Vacuum of The Hunger Games

Cover of "The Hunger Games" by Susanne Collins

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
Scholastic, 2010
384 pages, paperback, $8.99

(Given the wide-spread popularity of The Hunger Games and the multiplicity of reviews of it, this review will not summarize its plot; the reader can find a summary here.)

The Hunger Games presents its readers with a nihilistic world in which evil actions can be excused based on necessity. It accurately portrays the potential endgame of a big, centralized government and a population addicted to mass-media entertainment. In such a world, survival becomes the basis of morality and people mere objects in the pursuit of survival. While such a Machiavellian ethic seems realistic given the situation in which Suzanne Collins places her characters, she presents no alternative ethic. Instead, she crafts the plot to mitigate, as much a possible, the moral culpability of her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. Continue reading Starving on Nihilism: The Moral Vacuum of The Hunger Games